By Gavriella Keyles
Those of us born between 1980 and 2000 are subject to a variety of categorizations: Gen Y-ers, millennials, lazy good-for-nothings, "The Me Me Me Generation," entitled, shallow (thanks, Time Magazine, for those last few) and a variety of other less-than-flattering names. What we may call ourselves differs greatly—ambitious, terrified, smart, savvy, bored, nostalgic ... but few of us outside of rural communities, I would guess, would say we are particularly interested in the agricultural sector. While this may be true, I see an amazing opportunity to add that last characteristic to the list—an opportunity for farmers, and for agriculture’s political and economic interests.
Agriculture is poised to leap back into the consciousness of those outside of the industry. And there’s no time like the present. Recent difficulty passing a farm bill, a debate over immigration policies that could seriously harm the state of American agriculture and a critical labor shortage on farms indicate that farmers could use some non-ag allies. Farmers are more important than ever, not only for Americans but also for people across the globe—one U.S. farmer feeds around 155 people, and American agricultural innovation is changing the way the world grows food for the better. But considering that farmers make up only around 2% of the U.S. workforce and that 60% of American farmers are above age 55, millennials and agriculture don’t seem like a peas-and-carrots pair, right? Not exactly, thanks to "foodie-ism."
Time Magazine is right about one thing: millennials care about themselves, and that includes what goes into their bodies. There is one thing Gen Y-ers love, and that’s food. Last year was Food Network’s most watched year to date, and it held its spot in the list of the Top 10 cable networks for the fourth year in a row. And let’s not forget about the Cooking Channel, TLC, Bravo and the many other cable networks that have hopped on the "foodie" train. Spend five minutes on the Internet and it’s hard to not come across an article or photograph about a new food trend. Along with this comes the best thing to happen to farmers since sliced bread—or maybe since the tractor—a real, vested interest in where food comes from.
This "lazy" generation loves to wake up early for farmers markets on Saturday mornings, and they flock to farm-to-table concept restaurants. From D.C. to Los Angeles and everywhere in between, restaurants are publishing the names of farms in their menus and even tailoring their selections to what is locally available. Young people are increasingly more excited, interested and concerned about what’s on their plates and what’s in their bellies, and this infatuation could be an invaluable one for America’s farmers.
Millennials value what farmers do. They care about their communities and the people in them who are making fresh produce accessible. The result is an untapped resource, a small army of young people who could be inspired to advocate for the local farmer and to learn more about where their food comes from. Farmers and agricultural advocates should take advantage of the enormous opportunity they have in front of them to engage millennials in issues relevant to the farming community. It’s a natural alliance, really.
If millennials really care about their food and where it comes from, and I have enormous confidence that they do, they will care about the issues on Capitol Hill that pertain to their food. They just have to be educated about these issues first. This way, the farmer’s voice will be magnified in the political arena by millions of young people. The results of an amped-up campaign to get young people interested in farming on a deeper level than they are now may not be obvious. Maybe 20-somethings aren’t going to flock to the Capitol steps to wave picket signs, but when millennials are passionate, they use social media as an outlet for advocacy. Social media is the new platform for civic discourse, and it doesn’t take traditional media very long to pick up on what people are talking about in digital space.
Just as important as the floors of the House and the Senate are the aisles of the local grocery store. In a few years’ time, when young peoples’ extra hours are dedicated not to Facebook and Buzzfeed but to children and running households, their role in America’s consumer economy will be enormous. The health-food/organic community has already made major progress in influencing what people are buying at the grocery store, and the rest of the agricultural community can be equally influential if it is proactive.
Now that this alliance has been identified, it’s time to take action. How can farmers and food producers connect with their new audience, Generation Y? The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation recently took a creative, personal approach by inviting people to eat a meal at an area farm while learning about the agricultural industry. Connecting with chefs and food bloggers, who often have enormous influence (and often enormous audiences), is a useful tactic. A simpler approach is to use farmers markets to educate diners and consumers about the issues. Even a sign next to a booth at a farmers market or a post on social media can wake up consumers to things they just hadn’t thought about before—and it really is that simple. If people aren’t talking about an issue, it’s not always because they don’t care. It probably just hasn’t hit their radar yet.
Gavriella Keyles is a rising senior at Northwestern University, studying Middle Eastern languages and civilizations, as well as theatre. She is a current intern at the Farm Journal Foundation in Washington, D.C.